Cask of Amontillado: From the Page to the …Bar

Hi everyone! Did you miss me? It’s Keith Hock, We Happy Few’s Production Manager, Technical Director, and, according these new business cards… Blogslave [that can’t be right]. Today I’m here to tell you about something that we did for Halloween. I don’t just want to brag to you about how we did a cool thing that you probably didn’t see (although, in your face, it was awesome), I wanted to talk to you about what we did, why we did it, and how it worked. By the end of this post, if I’ve done my job correctly, you’ll feel like you were really there!

First things first. What did we do that I will spend the next 1500 words talking about? If you would take the time to look at the title of the blog post you’re reading you would realize that it PROBABLY had something to do with The Cask of Amontillado. In point of fact, we performed it, but that’s not all! Not only did we perform Cask, we performed it on Halloween night, and not only THAT, we performed it in Mockingbird Hill, a sherry bar. I would hope that at least the superficial reasons why would do such a thing be obvious, but because I love the sound of my fingers clattering on a keyboard I will explain our reasoning, from the simple to the literary to the practical.


From a superficial angle, Mockingbird Hill asked us to perform this piece on Halloween because it is a SPOOKY STORY ::wink:: that prominently features a CASK OF SHERRY ::wink, wink::. You would be hard pressed to find a more appropriate choice of story for a Halloween reading for ANY bar, much less one known for its sherry. If you WERE inclined to seek other booze-themed stories to read, however, Poe would probably be a good place to start (much better than that teetotaling racist H. P. Lovecraft). Poe is somewhat of a hero around Mockingbird Hill for his fondness for sherry specifically and drinking in general. He is even more of a figure in his native Baltimore, which seems to have forgiven him for dying penniless, drunk and alone in one of their gutters and has both a football franchise and brewery named in honor of his most famous piece, The Raven.

Poe would be an excellent choice for a Halloween READING, but, as my astute readers may have noted, we did not simply put on a reading, we had a PERFORMANCE, and performances are a horse of a much different color. Poe wrote his stories to be read; at most read aloud. Only once did he set his pen to write a play, and that unfinished, so we must take some liberties and do some adapting to bring his work from the page to the stage. In this, as well, Cask is uniquely suited within Poe’s bibliography for performance. It holds a number of advantages over other stories. It has two characters engaging in dialogue, for example, a trivial-sounding but important mark in its favor. The horror genre being what it is, an investigation of the unknown and unknowable, a mirror in our souls reflecting the darkness surrounding us (or is the mirror on the outside reflecting the darkness within?), stories in the milieu tend to be intensely personal and singly narrated. There is a reason both Lovecraft and Poe preferred to structure their pieces as the diary entries, letters, confessions or reminiscences of men going mad or killing themselves; to fear is to weaken, none would CHOOSE to share their fear unless they had no choice. Even this story, we discover at the end, is a confession of sorts, taking place long after the events described within. However, until it reaches that point, Cask remains more or less a dialogue and, if not unique, certainly unusual in the horror canon, an oddity we will gladly turn to our advantage.

Family Sarnath, by J. Reuter

The Family Sarnath, by J. Reuter, Bill Keane & H. P. Lovecraft

Cask has additional advantages, from a practical perspective; namely, it takes place almost entirely in a creepy cavern, surrounded by darkness and aged bottles of wine, eerily similar to the interior of Mockingbird Hill even before our Montresor, the inimitable Kerry McGee, graced the wall with a handmade banner of the family crest. Compare this setting to The Fall of the House of Usher’s disintegrating mansion, or the overkill oubliette of The Pit & The Pendulum, or The Masque of the Red Death’s seven-roomed Rainbow Party Palace. Creating an appropriate setting can be set aside for a reading, such detail is unnecessary for a reading, but as I’ve said time and again, we put on a PERFORMANCE, and unless your performance is Our Town [never do Our Town], it is useful to your audience to at least create the illusion that your characters are somewhere else than “in a bar on Halloween” or “standing under hot lights surrounded by people”. It doesn’t have to be much (our own Hamlet had nothing more than a box filled with mirrors and some rapidly changing costumes), as long as you demonstrate to your audience that for the next few minutes or hours they are not where they are, but where you want them to be.

From We Happy Few's 2012 production of Hamlet.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 production of Hamlet.

From We Happy Few's 2015 Production of The Cask of Amontillado.  L-R audience members, background Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee

From We Happy Few’s 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R background Raven Bonniwell, Kerry McGee

But enough about what makes The Cask of Amontillado such an excellent choice for this event. Why, as I have been so insistent, did we choose to do a performance instead of a reading? What was gained by our performing it? Why go through all that trouble?

I am glad you asked. The primary reason is that we are a THEATRE COMPANY, not a literary society. Performances are what we do. This is not to say we are above staged readings, a time-honored tool for approaching and performing scripts that we, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, may be showing off for you in the not-too-distant future. Simply that, in this situation, with this piece, and this setting, it would be a criminal waste of their talent for us to give scripts to Raven Bonniwell and Kerry McGee and then tell them “uh, yeah, just stand there and read it out loud” [Also, I would be fired if I spoke to them that way]. Indeed, Mockingbird Hill HAS in the past simply done staged readings of this piece for Halloween. In the last two years they have realized how much more interesting they can make it by having it staged instead of merely read.

The second, and arguably more interesting, reason, is that it allows us to draw additional meaning from the piece. A cursory glance through the text will tell you that it is absolutely RIDDLED with meaning and references, some more transparent than others (any idiot can suss out the significance of Masonic imagery or the appropriateness of the Montresor banner; how significant is it that it was Carnival, or that the walls are covered in nitre, or that the cask is specifically of Amontillado?  I don’t know, but I would wager that they matter). By staging it we can explore the text more thoroughly, emphasizing some of the meaning and, I dare say, adding some ourselves.

As one might expect from a story that is predominantly set in a labyrinth of crypts and ends with one of the characters entombed behind some fresh masonry and a wall of bones, The Cask of Amontillado trades heavily on a sense of claustrophobia. Time and again we are reminded of the dampness of the environment, the foulness of the air, the bones of Montresors past surrounding, the cramped tunnels and the dreadful solidity of the granite around them. But it is one thing to read of such things, it is another entirely to watch, shoulder to shoulder, crowded in around our actors as they hike through the tunnels into the pit. Barely able to turn around lest they strike an audience member, bound not by their imaginations as to the dimensions of the tunnels but by the reality of their playing space, they bring the audience into the abyss with them, to the point that when they lifted their flambeaux upward to observe the “nitre” on the ceiling, the audience looked as well, though there was nothing on the ceiling but heating ducts! And while the description of Montresor walling Fortunato up in her tomb, laughing and screaming the whole way, is something quite brutal, it doesn’t hold a candle to the finality of a screamed “Yes, for the love of God!” and a door closing on the terrified but very real face of Raven Bonniwell.

From We Happy Few's 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R Raven Bonniwell (Fortunado), Kerry McGee (Montresor)

From We Happy Few’s 2015 production of The Cask of Amontillado. L-R Raven Bonniwell (Fortunato), Kerry McGee (Montresor)

In this way we can accentuate what is already there. But what of adding our own meaning, as I alluded to earlier? It is also very doable (I would never lie to you) and in this case it is accomplished by the exact same means; the crowd surrounding them. As you may recall, at the very end we discover that this murder was committed some 50 years before, and that the remains have not been disturbed in that intervening time; indeed would be difficult to even find re-concealed behind the bones. And we have noticed that Montresor is at some pains to conceal her crime; in addition to sending her staff away, she chooses the bottommost crypt in her family’s creepy labyrinth of a wine cellar, and seals Fortunato away behind both a wall of bricks and a pile of bones. Note also that, though she had her rapier, she did not stab Fortunato, simply left her to starve, eliminating the potential for a bloody weapon in her possession. Montresor has completely concealed her crime and, within the context of the story, her explanation at the end is little more than an opportunity to reveal the 50 years twist (with a minor twinge of guilt). With an audience, however, her final pronouncement changes the tenor of the whole venture; her attitude (at least in Kerry McGee’s capable hands) changes to a taunting gloat to an appreciative audience. In other hands, with different motives or a simple framing mechanism (even a different setting or new costumes) it could be a confession to a priest or detective, a confrontation with a new generation of Fortunato, an explanation for a new generation of Montresor, the raving of a lunatic…options as wide as your director and actors’ imaginations.

I hope you all enjoyed my lengthy and pedantic explanation of our choices and methods in our recent performance of The Cask of Amontillado. If you liked this, please let me know! If you hated it, let me know that as well! I’m not going to stop writing these anytime soon, though, in fact you should expect another one later this month. As we expand our wheelhouse beyond the Elizabethan and begin to explore more and different pieces, you will find me there, to ruin the mystery and explain the magic. Until next time,

I have the honor to be, Yr Obedient Servant,

K. Hock

The Winter’s Tale: Putting the “Few” in We Happy Few

Well, hello again, adoring fans.  Fancy seeing you here, on our blog, of all places.  It’s still me, your handsome, clever and oh-so-humble production manager Keith Hock, with another blog entry, just in time for our second weekend of shows.  After our opening night last Friday I was sat in front of a computer and told if I didn’t write another post by the next weekend I would be fired realized that this show’s aggressive double-casting gave me a wonderful opening to put together another blog post to share with you all.

Surely some of you, as you left our shows last weekend, had wondered why we would take a play with a cast of 18 named characters and innumerable Guards, Lords, Ladies, Mariners, Gaolers, Shepherdesses, Satyrs, etc., and attempt to put it on with only six people.  And doubtless you would cast your mind back to our previous shows (as I have no doubt you are all long-time fans and have seen all of our performances) and you would be struck! astounded! to realize that, why, we’ve never had more than eight actors in a show!  How can such a thing be?  Well, don’t you all worry your pretty little heads, I’d be more than happy to assuage your fears and give you all a peek behind the dramaturgical veil as to how, and, more importantly, why We Happy Few puts on plays with so few actors. (There’s some arts-management reasons that I’ll go into as well, but that’s not NEARLY as sexy as the phrase ‘dramaturgical veil’).

As you have all noticed, in the narrative I have constructed to frame this blog posting, all of our shows have been notoriously light on actors.  Our last three shows, Duchess of Malfi, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest, all had only eight actors, while our debut, Hamlet, tied Winter’s Tale with six!  For reference, going on their Dramatis Personae pages, those shows called for 15 (Duchess), 20 (R&J), 12 (Tempest), and an astounding 22 (Hamlet) named characters*, not to mention anywhere from a magical island to an entire vendetta-fueled city full of supernumeraries.  The Tempest made up for its relatively light 12 characters with a veritable brugh’s worth of fairies, spirits, nymphs and reapers to fill the stage.  We very cleverly sidestepped that issue by turning all of those fairies into Ariel, and then also casting everyone in the show who wasn’t Prospero as Ariel, but how do we deal with the apparent 45-person cast list that Shakespeare [or Webster] has presented us with?
*I say ‘named’ characters but I’m also counting significant characters.  In Hamlet, the gravediggers, the head player, and the priest are all nameless, but since they play substantial roles in their respective scenes (more important than some with actual names, as you’ll see below) they all got counted in my census.

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Background L-R: Josh Adams, Britt Duff, Scott Gaines.  Foreground: Andrew Keller

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Background L-R: Josh Adams, Britt Duff, Scott Gaines. Foreground: Andrew Keller

The answer is we don’t, neither us nor pretty much any other theatre company in the world.  As cultured citizens of the world I am sure you all go to see plenty of plays that AREN’T We Happy Few-produced, and I’m equally sure that you’ve noticed that the actor bio sections of the programs aren’t 20 pages long and filled with Servants, Soldiers and Guards.  There’s a reason for that.  Did you remember that there was a character named Fortinbras in Hamlet?  What about Voltimand, or Cornelius?  Sometimes we realize that a character doesn’t need to be there, or a scene goes on a little too long, so we do some cutting and combining.  Instead of Reynaldo (Polonius’ servant, apparently) and a whole crowd of other, nameless servants jostling around in Elsinore, we just use Reynaldo, whenever a servant appears.  Or we decide that the play can survive without servants, and we ditch them altogether.  I’ve seen full-stage, big budget productions of Romeo and Juliet that just completely did away with Paris.  Our own Hamlet excised Horatio, and nobody missed him.  It’s not that these characters and scenes don’t serve a purpose in the text, Shakespeare did little needlessly (I’m ignoring Timon of Athens when I say that).  They just don’t serve a purpose in the story we’re telling, so off they go.

All theatre companies do it, but we have to do it more than most.  As a predominantly Fringe company, with a stated focus on creating “stripped down, small cast, ensemble productions”, our timing and manpower is intentionally limited.  We bring all of our shows down to 90 minutes by the time we open, and we do it by scrapping every beat, every moment, every character, that isn’t completely necessary to telling the story we want to tell.  Sometimes that can hurt.  Did you know there was a surprisingly prominent Duke Ferdinand/werewolf subplot in Duchess of Malfi?  I did, because I watched us gradually pare it away in rehearsal as we fought to get to 90 minutes.  In addition to being crazy badass, it was powerful character development for Ferdinand, who loses his already-tenuous connection with his humanity after the barbarism of his parricide and talks himself into the belief that he is a wolf.  We were all sad to see it go, but we knew that it was a few minutes worth of dialogue we couldn’t afford to tell the story we needed to tell.

Don't judge me.

Greater Werewolf, 5th Edition, Magic: The Gathering. Art by Dennis Detwiller

Cutting characters and scenes is all well, and it certainly helps us lower the cast requirements (which you’ll recall is the point I’m supposed to be making in this post), but it only gets us so far.  What we really do to cut that down is double-cast, have one actor play two (or more) roles.  This buys you a lot of space, as many of your actors in smaller roles can serve double duty.  Sampson done being in the play after Act I?  Stuff him in a monk’s robe and he’s Friar John!  All your sailors drowned at the beginning when Prospero brought forth the storm?  (they didn’t, re-read Act I Scene 2, but they’re never seen again so its the same thing)  Roll them in glitter and now they’re spirits!

Combining these two things, cutting and double-casting, can usually get you to somewhere around 12-15 actors.  That’s pretty good, and it works for other companies, but it’s not enough for us.  We take our double-casting a step or two further than a lot of other companies.  Earlier I mentioned that the actors that are double cast are usually the non-leading parts, because they have fewer lines and are in fewer scenes; their casting is a matter of convenience.  OUR double-casting is deliberate and ubiquitous, especially under the guidance of director/producer/founder/superhero, Hannah Todd.  In her productions the only characters we have NOT double-cast were Prospero in The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet in… Romeo and Juliet; Prospero to emphasize his control over everything that happens on the island, and the star-crossed teens to point out their solitude as the only lovers in a city full of hate (My astute readers will argue that Hamlet was single-cast as well, but our Hamlet also spoke the lines for his dead father.  Whether or not the ghost should count as a character in OUR interpretation is up for debate, but since he had two character’s worth of lines he counts as double-cast for my purposes).  Everyone else has been at least double cast, and most of those casting choices have been meaningful, not just a consequence of what scenes happened when.  It was no coincidence that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were also Ophelia and Laertes, or that Tybalt was also the Nurse, or that, as I mentioned earlier, everyone but Prospero, even Caliban, was Ariel.  These choices serve a greater thematic purpose and say more about the show than simply what actors are available for those scenes.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 Hamlet. Left-Right: Raven Bonniwell (Ophelia), Billy Finn (Laertes).

From We Happy Few's 2012 Hamlet.  Left-Right: Billy Finn, Chris Genebach, Raven Bonniwell.

From We Happy Few’s 2012 Hamlet. Left-Right: Billy Finn (Rosencrantz or Guildenstern), Chris Genebach (Hamlet), Raven Bonniwell (the other one).

But we have attained more saturation with our multi-casting for The Winter’s Tale than with any show before.  If you saw it already, surely you realized how significant it was that Kerry McGee embody both Mamillius and his sister Perdita, or that Kiernan McGowan play both the doomed Antigonus and the servant who relayed his demise, or that Raven Bonniwell portray both Hermione and Camillo’s mirrored punishments.  How fitting that Nathan Bennett give us both the prideful, paranoid, appearance-obsessed Leontes and the ludicrous cross-dressing confluence of Dorcas and Mopsa.  How touching that Katy Carkuff deliver the baby Perdita as Paulina, and raise it across the sea as the Shepherd.  And how truly remarkable that William Vaughan’s nameless lord (guard?) who comforts Mamillius in the beginning, turn out to be none other than Perdita’s love Florizel at the end.*  I told you last time there was magic to be had by the double handful in the Romances, you just have to know where to look.

*If you didn’t realize how all this was to be significant, or haven’t seen it yet and have no idea what I’m talking about, tickets are still available for all our upcoming shows here!

The Winter’s Tale: What Makes A Romance?

Hi, everybody!

::Await obligatory ‘Hi, Dr. Nick!’ callback.::

My name is Keith Hock and I am the production manager and technical director for your favorite Capitol Fringe company, We Happy Few Productions!  We’re about halfway through the rehearsal process for our upcoming presentation of The Winter’s Tale, and while our Periscope videos (accessible through twitter, if you follow us) have done a great job of introducing you to the creative process behind the making of the show, they haven’t really delved too deeply into what this show is and why we would choose to do it.  So at our last production meeting I drew the short straw and got roped into willingly and totally without coercion volunteered to put together a brief breakdown of how The Winter’s Tale fits into Shakespeare’s bibliography and our own ethos.

The table of contents, as it were, of the First Folio

The table of contents, as it were, of the First Folio

The shows that We Happy Few has done, to date, have been Hamlet, The Tempest, Romeo & Juliet, The Duchess of Malfi and, soon, The Winter’s Tale.  Of these plays, three are classified as Tragedies; Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, and The Duchess of Malfi, and the other two as Romances (Duchess is anomalous in this list because it was written by Webster, not Shakespeare, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more tragic play than The Duchess of Malfi.  For more information about THAT show please look back into our archives and read the posts by my blogging predecessor, the inimitable Alan Katz).  When we began our career with Hamlet we established our love of tragedies, the darker and more brooding the better; this led us in turn to the hormone-laden blood feud of Romeo & Juliet and the old-school revenge tragedy of The Duchess of Malfi (fun fact: revenge tragedies are also known as Tragedies of Blood!  This should come as no surprise to anyone who saw Duchess last summer).  So how do we reconcile the blood and hate of these tragedies with what you suspect to be the tedious, cloying will-they/won’t-they love story that the name “Romance” suggests?

As You Like It Wedding

The wedding scene in As You Like It. Not the sort of romance we’re doing this summer. (Painting by Richard Russell)

Fortunately for us, unless you were hoping for a sappy rom-com story (in which case, get the hell off my blog), the term “Romance” in this context does not imply what we generally think of as romantic; the closest Shakespeare comes to modern rom-com style love stories are his Comedies, named so not because they’re funny (although they are) but because they end well and leave the audience feeling happy; they also deal with love stories and almost exclusively end with AT LEAST one marriage.  Historically the Romances were grouped into either the Tragedies or Comedies more or less at the whims of their readers; The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were classified as Comedies while Cymbeline and Pericles were classified as Tragedies.  These do not precisely fit for either category; while there is blood and death to be had in both Pericles and Cymbeline, both title characters make it out of the play alive, a major no-no for Tragedies, and neither of them are brought low by some character flaw.  Likewise, there are love stories in both The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, as well as Cymbeline and Pericles for that matter, but in neither of them are they the focus of the plot.  So these four Romance plays do not share the traditional markings of either Shakespeare’s Tragedies OR Comedies (or the Histories, for the completionists out there).

Miranda observing Prospero's storm at the beginning of The Tempest.  Yes the sort of Romance we're doing this summer. (Painting by J. W. Waterhouse)

Miranda observing Prospero’s storm at the beginning of The Tempest. Yes the sort of Romance we’re doing this summer. (Painting by J. W. Waterhouse)

What they DO share is a remarkable similarity to each other.  All of these plays heavily feature the relationship between a single father and daughter.  They all feature families that have been separated.  Those separations all involve either betrayal, a body of water, or both.  In every case these father figures (Pericles, Prospero, Cymbeline, and Leontes) have made some serious error in judgement that led to their separation from their family, and have some noble friend and ally who remained loyal to them, usually without their knowledge.  They all involve a substantial leap forward in time in the story.  They each end with a reconciliation and reunification of the separated families, as the protagonist learns the mistake he has made and atones for it.

From We Happy Few's 2013 production of The Tempest.  Left-Right: Josh Adams, Andrew Keller, Scott Gaines, and Britt Duff.

From We Happy Few’s 2013 production of The Tempest. Left-Right: Josh Adams, Andrew Keller, Scott Gaines, and Britt Duff.

And, most significantly from the We Happy Few perspective, they all have explicit moments of magic.  Whether that magic is Prospero calling the storm at the beginning of The Tempest, Jupiter, King of the Gods, delivering a letter to Posthumus in prison in Cymbeline, fire from the heavens consuming Antioch at the end of Pericles, or …well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending of OUR play before you came to see it, but believe me when I tell you that magic and mystery abound in the Romances.  As our faithful viewers should recall from previous productions, We Happy Few thrives on discovering the magical and mysterious.  Beginning with Hamlet’s madness as he watches his friends transform into his enemies before his eyes, through Juliet’s attempt to escape imprisonment in a literal man’s world, and ending with the phantom vengeance of the Duchess of Malfi on her treacherous brothers, We Happy Few has always found and brought out the magic in our plays.  It should come as no surprise that we would choose to do another Romance so soon.  Far from not fitting into the traditional WHF model, The Winter’s Tale may be the closest we’ve come to our ethos since Hamlet.

Press Praise Pours in for Duchess of Malfi!

The full spread of the incredibly talented cast of Duchess of Malfi. From left to right, Rafael Untalan,* Drew Kopas,* Harlan Work,* Gwen Grastorf, Lindsey Synder, Jonathan Lee Taylor,* Brit Herring,* and Matthew Pauli.

The full spread of the incredibly talented cast of Duchess of Malfi. From left to right, Rafael Untalan,* Drew Kopas,* Harlan Work,* Gwen Grastorf, Lindsey Synder, Jonathan Lee Taylor,* Brit Herring,* and Matthew Pauli.


“Reisman keeps Webster’s often ghoulish plot moving at the speed of an executioner’s axe.” (Washington Post)

The Press has seen Duchess of Malfi and they are in love with the play! Just check out some out the amazing reviews we have been getting from a huge range of outlets:


The ensemble’s nimble, balanced cast brings the story of the Duchess, played with clarity and passion by Lindsey D. Snyder, to the fore.



Lindsey Snyder: "Badass" (Washington City Paper)

Lindsey Snyder: “Badass” (Washington City Paper)



The direction was skilled and precise as one would expect from Paul Reisman. So there is little surprise in the fact that working in tandem with this fabulous cast they crafted a phenomenal show.



Matthew Pauli plays the Cardinal with "sinister smuttiness" (Broadway World)

Matthew Pauli plays the Cardinal with “sinister smuttiness” (Broadway World)



Snyder, Herring, Pauli, and Untalan are as good in this as any actors you’re likely to see at Fringe

You can get tickets RIGHT HERE for DUCHESS OF MALFI, but you have to hurry because we are selling out fast!

The TRUE and SHOCKING Tale of Giovanna D’Aragona, the Duchess of Malfi

Lindsey's face is saying "Cool story, bro"

Lindsey Snyder (seated) as the Duchess of Malfi being patronized by Brit Herring (center) as the Duchess’ brother Duke Ferdinand, while Matthew Pauli (right) looking on as the Cardinal, the Duchess other brother. Photo courtesy Paul Reisman, who puts the capital D in Director.

Welcome to the most kick-ass Duchess of Malfi blog you will read today! I’m Alan Katz, your faithful dramaturg and blogger. We Happy Few are deep in tech rehearsal right now at the Mead Theatre Lab, creating some technical theater magic that will wow you when you come see the show. While they are busy making magic in the present day, I’m going to take you back in time, way back, in fact, to the early 16th century in southern Italy. Here we’ll not only find courts full of plots and panderers, but also our eponymous Duchess, Giovanna d’Aragona, whose tragic life is the subject of John Webster’s play.

Apparently, Ayrton thought that the Duchess had an alternate career in the circus as "The Incredible Long-Armed Woman"

Since no contemporary portrait exists of our particular Giovanna d’Aragona, here is Michael Ayrton’s interpretation of the Duchess circa 1945. Photo courtesy of

Giovanna d’Aragona’s life was tragic, with death following her even from early in her life. Her father, Enrico d’Aragona Marquis of Gerace, was poisoned by mushrooms in 1478 when she was just a year old. She became the Duchess of Malfi through marriage, having wedded late (for her time) at the age of twenty. Her husband died shortly thereafter, widowing her before the age of 30 and giving her sole claim to rule the Duchy of Amalfi. John Webster’s play picks up a while after her husband’s death, with the Duchess ruling the roost.

Up in the club, you just croaked up/ I'm doing my own little thing/You decided to dip, but now you wanna trip/Cause my jealous brothers noticed me

Here is Lindsey Snyder, our Duchess of Malfi, blinging out like the badass ruler she is and staying strong despite her husband’s early demise. Photo Courtesy of Gwen Grastorf, who rocks

Here is where our Duchess starts to get into trouble. With the culture of 16th century Italy being as sexist as it was, even a woman of royal blood who was ruling a Duchy had to have a man taking care of business affairs for her. For the Duchess, this man was Antonio Beccadelli Bologna. Now, Antonio was the major domo to the Duchess (sometimes called a butler), so he handled the accounting of her possessions and lands, a chief steward to the household. That isn’t to say that Antonio was just a common peasant. His grandfather was a celebrated Humanist and had been granted citizenship and nobility in the Kingdom of Naples, so Antonio was more of a small-time, up-jumped aristocrat. Despite that rank, Antonio and the Duchess got themselves into trouble when they fell in love. The Duchess was of royal blood (her grandfather was the King of Naples) and loving a mid-status guy like Antonio was frowned upon, especially by her brother Luigi (a Cardinal and the chief power-broker in her family).

He'll live on, and he'll be strong, cause it ain't his cross to bear.

Here is Matthew Pauli as the Cardinal, looking super dark and mysterious with his ominous cross necklace. Photo courtesy of Paul Reisman, who can really capture Noir, even without the use of fedoras.


SPOILER ALERT! From here to the end of this blog post there are potential SPOILERS! While John Webster didn’t exactly follow the true history of the real Duchess of Malfi, he did incorporate major elements of the history into his play. If you continue reading, you do so at the risk of SPOILING some of the plot twists in the play. If you don’t care about spoilers or have already read the Wikipedia article for the Duchess of Malfi, read on, brave soul. **


The fact that the Duchess and Antonio were in love wasn’t very culturally acceptable, but not uncommon. There are all sorts of examples of royals having affairs with lower nobility at this time in Italy. But, and this is a big but, one thing that was NOT done was a royal marrying someone of a lower class, even a lower noble class. So what do the Duchess and Antonio do? Get married, of course. They were married in a secret ceremony, too, so they definitely knew that they were breaking taboos. Then, the took another step and had children together, which is a pretty hard thing to hide. They wound up not being able to hide it. Cardinal Luigi found out, so the Duchess and Antonio picked up their children and ran. The Cardinal, being a powerful man with connections throughout Italy, found their hiding spot in Ancona, and got them exiled.

All along the watchtower, Duchess kept the view. Where both her brothers came and went, and executioners, too.

The Torre Dello Ziro, one of the possible resting places of the Duchess of Malfi and her children. Part of its grounds have been converted into a bed and breakfast. Because, you know, historical child murder is what you really want in a B&B. Photo courtesy of

Here’s where things get interesting. Antonio escapes to Milan, but the Duchess and her children don’t. They disappear. Tradition holds that the Duchess and her children were either taken back to her palace at Amalfi or to the Torre Dello Ziro on the Amalfi coast. All of the sources agree, however, that none of them were ever seen again. The Cardinal was thought to be the force behind her murder. Soon after, Antonio was spotted going to church in Milan, and, right after he left, he was murdered in the street by a man named Bosola, who was thought to be an agent of the Cardinal. Ironically, after being the prime suspect in the murders of two adults and three children, Cardinal Luigi headed up a Papal Commission investigating secret intrigues. I guess it takes an evil, secretive conspirator to know an evil, secretive conspirator.

Over the next couple of posts, we’ll be featuring some meet-the-cast videos, and a look at the Early Modern adaptation, plus the original production of Duchess of Malfi to see how it influenced the play you are going to go see, starting July 13th!

Get your tickets for Duchess of Malfi now!

A New We Happy Few Show is Coming!

And we’re back! We Happy Few is returning from a long hiatus after our very successful run of Romeo and Juliet last year, and We’ve got a tempting, but rarely produced, masterpiece on the boards for Capital Fringe this summer. As you may remember, when Hannah Todd and Raven Bonniwell founded We Happy Few, they created a company dedicated to producing small-cast, stripped down, ensemble versions of classic plays. Over the past 3 years, We have done exactly that, putting on small cast versions of The Tempest, Hamlet and, Romeo and Juliet. What do all of those plays have in common? They’re all written by William Shakespeare! But our mission is bigger than just Shakespeare, We are committed to perform classic plays in our special style. So we are branching out this summer by performing the rarely-produced, but razor-sharp, Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.

Duchess of Malfi Title PageThe original title page for the quarto of Duchess of Malfi. Are there awesome gems of knowledge hidden in this image? You bet your sweet bippy there are. And you can find out what they are in the next blog post! (Photo courtesy of the University of Oxford)

Haven’t heard of the Duchess? Don’t worry. If you like the intrigue of Shakespeare’s Histories or the madness and murder of his Tragedies, you are going to love The Duchess of Malfi. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? It gets awesomer. We have all kinds of special treats planned for our audiences. From a pre-show talk on July 16th to a post-show discussion with some of the creative team on July 19th, there are all kinds of ways for you to get closer to this play. Even better, you can come back to this blog and check out cool features where you can learn about the play, meet the cast and creative team, and get sneak peeks into rehearsal. Speaking of sneak peeks into rehearsal…

Alan, Paul, and KiernanAlan Katz (left), Dramaturg and Incredibly Handsome Man, Paul Reisman (middle), Director and Even Handsomer Man, and Kiernan McGowan (right) , Producer and Handsomest Man of Them All (Photo courtesy of the wonderful Gwen Grastorf)

I will be one of your hosts for these awesome goodies. That’s me on the left, during one of the first rehearsals for Duchess, doing some dramaturgical “table work” with the director and actors. Table work comes in the first few rehearsals of the production, where the cast and creative team literally sit around a table to read the script and the director explains his vision while initial questions about the script are answered. As the dramaturg, table work is important for my job, since my job is to bring a historical perspective to the production and to help make the play more accessible to you, our audience. Join me for some upcoming blog posts where you can learn about the true story of the Duchess of Malfi, a story rife with dangerous secrets, illicit affairs, intrigue, madness, and murder where Big Brother lurks around every corner in this disturbingly modern world.

Tickets are on sale now! We open on July 13th at Flashpoint DC and run through July 23rd! Buy your tickets now!


Everything Old is New Again: Rediscovering ROMEO AND JULIET

For this year’s Capital Fringe Festival, We Happy Few tackled an almost 400 year old play by William Shakespeare. ROMEO AND JULIET is frequently taught, frequently read, and frequently staged. So why did we chose to take on this classic? First, we injected a new artistic concept (see our older posts for more on this). And of course, we love to take on a challenge. But we also know that revisiting this play will open up new ideas for us and bring to light some connections that we had never made before. Using this new perspective, we hope that our audience also comes away from the show feeling that it isn’t just the “same old story” but that ROMEO AND JULIET now has new meaning to them.

There’s a reason that ROMEO AND JULIET is so popular. It’s a damn good play, and arguably one of Shakespeare’s best. In our last cast interview video of this series, the actors in our production discuss the things that surprised them during the process of staging ROMEO AND JULIET. Enjoy!


Our very last performance of ROMEO AND JULIET is on stage this evening at Source. Be sure to get a ticket! Don’t miss a wonderful opportunity to revisit this classic tragedy with us.